Where are we now?
„NATO is obsolete“ and „America first“ – with these first foreign policy statements the new US President Donald Trump has caused great insecurity in the transatlantic community. Everything that had been taken for granted, the community of values, the common belief in international organizations like the UN, and the common understanding of a global threats like climate change seemed to have disappeared overnight.
This new tone in transatlantic relations already has first broader consequences in European, and particularly German public opinion: before the November election 2016 59% of the German public saw the US as a trustworthy international partner, now this has dropped to historically low 21 %.
Looking at the close transatlantic partnership over the last 70 years, how was it possible that a candidate won the US elections with such a nationalistic and even anti-European rhetoric? And why have only a few months of the Trump presidency already lead to a strong renaissance of anti-Americanism in Europe? Should this community of values not be more resilient to these challenges, especially in times when digitalization seems to bring us closer together?
What went wrong?
Over the last 28 years, our societies and our perceptions of each other have significantly changed due to more diverse demographics, the Post-Cold War world order, and socio-economic consequences of globalization. Despite these changes, the core narrative of transatlantic relations has mainly stayed the same and has hardly been able to adjust to the new realities. In addition, international dialog and cosmopolitan thinking has mostly thrived in urban and economic hubs, while many rural and economically weak regions have been disconnected from these developments. There, international exchange and interaction is mostly not seen as an opportunity but rather as a threat, often leading to nationalistic and isolationistic sentiments.
To counter the growing political divide and disconnect and formulate a new transatlantic narrative, it is imminent that we reach out to these unrepresented parts of our societies and try to include them into the conversation as best as possible.
What can be done?
In my opinion, the key to diversify transatlantic relations is strenthening and promoting international exchange in educational systems on both sides of the Atlantic. First-hand intercultural experiences are crucial for a more tolerant and peaceful society and for fostering international understanding.
In practical terms, this not only means strengthening the already existing transatlantic exchange programs on high school and university level, but also extending the access to intercultural experiences to these groups of studens who are normally not amongst the „usual suspects“: students with difficult social backgrounds, students who might not aim for a college or university degree, students from migrant communities or from regions with no tradition of transatlantic exchange.
Even though student exchange from Germany to the US is flourishing, most of these students come from the higher education branch, the so called „Gymnasium“, representing only 35% of all German high school students. In this regard, gaining experiences abroad highly depends on the student’s individual level of education and his or her economic and family background.
In the US, exchange numbers are slowly on the rise, but mostly at the college and university level. Still, only one out of ten undergraduate students has had any experience abroad before graduating and only 27% of these students have a minority background.
In order to promote international understanding in all parts of society this imbalance has to be adressed: Strengthening scholarship systems for international student exchange, including intercultural education into the school curricula, and offering more extracurricular and volunteer programs abroad could be useful tools to increase intercultural competences among young people.
In this regard, it is important to raise more awareness for the value of transatlantic exchange through multipliers in the educational system, like teachers or educational experts and administrators. Giving teachers an international experience of their own would enable them to pass their experiences on to their students and encourage them to go abroad themselves. Involving educational experts and administrators could help to change the structural negelct that we still find in our educational systems when it comes to intercultural education.
There are already some best-practice programs that particularly address these multipliers, like the Goethe Institute’s Transatlantic Outreach Program for US teachers and educational experts or the Atlantikbrücke’s study trips for US social study teachers and teachers from Eastern Germany.
These initiatives and the impact they have on their participants provide good examples how international education can be a great asset to our educational systems. We have to extend these kind of programs in order to multiply their effects and bring international experiences to a wider range of students and educational stakeholders.
For me, this is the best and most sustainable approach possible to bring our societies closer together, to increase knowledge and understanding about each other, and make the next generation of Europeans and Americans ready to continue the transalantic partnership.